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Fugitive keeps giving the slip to fed agents

Clinic stalker tied to recent bank heist

Monday, May 28, 2001

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like a born-again John Dillinger, Clayton Lee Waagner has eluded one of the largest manhunts in the history of the U.S. Marshals Service, moving easily through old haunts, keeping in touch by Internet and telephone, and smiling as he robbed a bank inside a shopping mall without benefit of a mask.

"He is probably one of the smartest fugitives I have dealt with," said Deputy U.S. Marshal Bruce Harmening.

Clayton Lee Waagner in a photo posted at the U.S. Marshals Service web site with background on Waagner.

He is also one of the most enterprising.

Waagner, of Kennerdell, Venango County, was convicted on a raft of federal charges after a multistate crime rampage during which he said he stalked -- but could not bring himself to kill -- abortion providers.

He escaped from federal custody three months ago while being held in a county jail in DeWitt County, Ill. He pried open a lock with a plastic comb, climbed through the roof of the jail, then stole a truck and slipped past a fleet of pursuing police cars.

Since that escape, police believe Waagner has stolen at least one more truck, been sighted at roadside stops in the mid-South, and traveled the eastern United States and, a week ago, robbed a bank inside a shopping mall near Harrisburg.

"I'm not sure what our next move's going to be," said Harmening.

Waagner's threats against abortion clinics, as well as his skills as a survivalist, have put him on the Marshals Service 15 Most Wanted List. He has been profiled four times on "America's Most Wanted" and producers plan a fifth segment detailing his escape. Earlier broadcasts resulted in reported sightings in Tennessee and the South, but a truck he stole in Clinton, Ill., two days after his jail break, turned up on April 30 in a motel parking lot in State College, Centre County, where he is suspected of stealing a 1998 Ford Explorer from a nearby dealership before moving on.

Clayton Lee Waagner in December of 1999 in this Federal Bureau of Prisons photo (AP)

Authorities now believe he has returned to Pennsylvania and are exploring the possibility that Waagner, who once fled into the Allegheny National Forest to elude police two years ago, has hidden out there.

"Just based on his history I would imagine that's where he's most comfortable," Harmening said.

A former Waagner accomplice, Jason Miller, said he tried to tell marshals two months ago that Waagner would likely return to the area.

Miller, 26, of Grove City, was with Waagner when the pair robbed a convenience store near Lexington, Ky., in 1999. Miller said he and Waagner had set out to rob coin dealers to stockpile a cache of gold because Waagner expected chaos when computers crashed at the beginning of 2000. Miller later testified against Waagner.

"He stole a travel trailer while I was locked up and they never found it," Miller said, theorizing that Waagner had stashed it in the Allegheny National Forest as a hiding place. "If you're gonna hide out, you're gonna want an area you know."

Waagner, who has served a federal prison sentence for the theft of a coin collection in Michigan, and has a history of weapons violations, settled with his wife and eight children in a house in the woods of Venango County about 10 years ago. He met Miller when the two men attended the River of God Church, a fundamentalist denomination in nearby Grove City.

Authorities presently believe Waagner is traveling constantly, but worry that once settled in an area, he might again turn his attention on striking out at abortion clinics. When he was arrested in Illinois in September 1999, Waagner told federal agents he was on his way to Seattle where he hoped to shoot an abortion doctor. Weeks earlier, when Waagner abandoned a stolen truck near the Allegheny National Forest, state police found ammunition and a list of abortion clinics and their addresses.

At least twice, federal agents arrived a day behind Waagner after he checked out of motels in Chambersburg and Greencastle, according to police. He has also been picked up on wiretaps out of Central Pennsylvania, using a cell phone to contact friends.

"They were a day late at a couple different hotels he was at," said Dick Toth, a police sergeant in Lower Paxton Township near Harrisburg. "They said they knew he was in Central Pennsylvania because they'd tracked him on cell phone conversations."

Clayton Lee Waagner in this September, 1999 Federal Bureau of Prisons photo. (AP)

In fact, investigators now believe Waagner has used a combination of telephone calling cards and Internet programs that allow users to convert a computer for phone use, to contact family members.

It was at the Colonial Park Mall in Lower Paxton that Waagner was picked up on surveillance cameras on May 17, strolling into the First Union Bank where he pulled out a handgun, held up a teller, and fled with several thousand dollars in cash.

"He didn't care if anyone saw it was him or not," said Toth.

Toth said police are "fairly confident" that Waagner was assisted by another, unidentified man, who they said was driving a Volvo station wagon with Texas plates and a blue tarp covering luggage on the roof.

FBI and Lower Paxton police met Tuesday to discuss whether to file state or federal charges against Waagner for the bank robbery.

Waagner's apparent bank holdup caused Secret Service to step up security around President Bush the following day when Bush visited a hydroelectric generating station in nearby Lancaster County.



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